Saturday, 30 March 2013

A Discussion Over Drinks

Last December (2012) during a brief holiday trip to Japan, Hanna and I had the opportunity to meet with Hatakenaka- (Iaido Kyoshi 8 Dan) and Tsubaki-Sensei (Iaido Kyoshi 7 Dan) for an impromptu dinner near Shinjuku Station.  It was only a few days before January 1st and the streets were bustling with people going in all directions. New Years is a special time for Japanese and I was eager to see what the mood would be like. Optimistic is the word I'd choose. A sensation we mirrored as the two Sensei greeted us with warm smiles and genuine delight.

As we made our way to the restaurant, Hanna engaged them with some light chit-chat and an update of what we've been up to in Canada since summer. Both Sensei were particularly happy with the success of the 1st Mu Mon Kai Iaido Tournament and the growing bond between us and our neighbours south of the border. The phrases "I wish I was there" and "I'd like to come to the next one" were repeated several times as we recounted the Toronto event and mentioned plans for this year's 1st Canadian National Iaido Championships.

Our conversation over food was light at first; with each Sensei taking turns answering some of our basic questions on improving our abilities and helping Canadian Iaido grow. Tsubaki Sensei offered me some horse sashimi and amused himself as I chewed 1,367 times before I was able to swallow it. As the evening wore on, and perhaps contributed by a few drinks, both Sensei began to open up. We could see the passion in their eyes as they revealed to us what was truly important for our development as Iaidoka and future leaders in the community.

The following is a recap of our conversation with disclaimers:

  • The conversation was entirely in Japanese. I was able to take some notes with my small understanding of the language, but most of the details were recorded in Japanese an hour later by Hanna in our hotel room.
  • We then translated these notes into English for this blog entry.
  • As with the transmission of Iaido and Kyudo, it is always better to hear it live and from the source. 
Q: How should we be training with only limited access to Japanese Iaido?
H: It is important to study the ZNKR kihon and to thoroughly practice them. At 4 Dan, Ma (timing & distance) should be introduced and studied. The ideal method for learning these concepts is through mitori-keiko, to watch a higher level practitioner. Canadian Iaido is still in its adolescence and has the potential to improve rapidly. It is important to use the visiting Japanese Sensei as role models for high level concepts. 

During the annual Sei Do Kai Spring Seminar, Canadian's get the opportunity to watch the performances of elite individuals. You must keep their actions in mind over the year and practice constantly and diligently to internalize the abilities that you saw. Image training is important. Try to imagine the motions you want to follow after watching the high-level practitioners. Even I do this, and after a year, I can still see them in my mind.

As you progress, it remains important that you train in a straight forward manner: to follow your Sensei and stick to a line. Canada has a small Iaido population, but even then, it is important to choose and follow. The Sensei-Student relationship is not to be taken lightly. 

Renshu - Training/Practice/Drilling/Sharpening is critical. Learning through speech is limited.  

(Personal note: While in Japan last summer, we attended five of Hatakenaka-Sensei' weekly classes. In each 3 hour session, students received at most two sentences of instruction/correction from Sensei. The rest was keiko. I felt like I had gone swimming in my gi and hakama at the end of each class)

Q: How can we continue to raise the bar in Canada?
H: In recent years, Canadian gradings under the supervision of AJKF delegates (i.e. Kishimoto Chihiro Sensei) have produced decent results. In the future, the use of official AJKF panels, like in Europe and the United States will further improve the application of standards to rank. Currently, Canada follows FIK rules, but lack the ability to administer the high level standards. Without proper guidance at the senior level (Ex. the premature promotion of rank) the long-term outlook of Iaido in Canada will be in jeopardy.

Q: How does competition fit into the learning of Iaido?
H: Competition and gradings are an opportunity to test and compare yourself to others of the similar rank and ability. It is currently the best way to gauge where you are in terms of the generally accepted criteria for each level. During regular practice, you are focused on yourself and your own Iai. In competition you are able to see others and as I mentioned earlier, find the good role models and keep them in your head. 

In most sports, it is easy to compare based on wins, points, or knock downs, which is the ultimate goal. In Iaido, or any Budo, the goal is to improve. I personally use the competitive spirit as motivation to focus. However, even in losing there is much to learn and a good Sensei should encourage students to find this knowledge. In my mind, competition is 10 times more beneficial than regular practice as I need to try much harder to learn from winning and losing.

Q. So to be a good student, you need to take advantage of all opportunities to learn?
H: Some people are gifted in ability, understand quickly, and are able to adjust right away. A good Sensei needs to realize when they are able to accept the next piece of advice. Others require time to figure things out, but once they understand, are able to follow correctly. A good Sensei needs to give them space to practice and think it through themselves. The worst type of student is one who understands, but refuses to change. In those cases, a Sensei will be reluctant to work with them in the future.

When we initially saw Hanna, neither of us thought you would last long in Iaido. You were in that second category. It took a lot of effort and perseverance to achieve your current standing. In fact, you are the only person to have made a significantly major improvement in each and every year we visit.

Q. We also have good Sensei.
H: It is very important to have a good Sensei, but it is also possible to learn with a bad one. In Japan, you typically will not start teaching until you have reached 7 or 8 Dan. Finding mistakes is easy, fixing them is very difficult and requires experience.

T (speaks up): I've trained with many Sensei before meeting Hatakenaka-Sensei. Each one sees or looks for different things. When performing Mae, most only look at the Kissaski for sharpness and power. In our first meeting, Hatakenaka-Sensei was only looking at my foot. To me it looked ok, perhaps 1-2 degrees off, but to her it was a serious issue that I must correct before coming to Canada and representing the AJKF. It is rare, even in Japan, to find a Sensei that can see through to the root cause of your issues and fix your overall Iai. Canada must keep her! (he starts tearing up) Had I not come to Canada, I would not have been able to meet and learn from her. It seems like fate. Now I will follow her anywhere.

H: It has not been easy for me. I've been without a direct Sensei since I was 4 Dan. I've had many instructors come and go, but it was only after I successfully passed 8 Dan did I realize how grateful I was to every single one of them. (there are now tears in her eyes as well) It was so important that I persevere through the tough times and learn from the bad Sensei. I learned all the details of distinguishing between what is good for a student and what is bad. For this reason, I am just as grateful, if not more so, for the experiences I've had with the bad Sensei.

This experience was one we'd not soon forget. To see these two Sensei, approaching the pinnacle of the organization, still speaking like they were students, still struggling to be better each day, was inspiring. 

Not wanting to end the evening on such a somber note, the Sensei provided some personal feedback on our progress in Iaido and encouraged us to continue working hard to build relationships across Canada and the US. With less than two months until the Guelph Seminar, we are look forward to seeing them soon.

1 comment: